A Royal Guest on Christmas Eve - Lecia Cornwall
Lecia Cornwall lives in Calgary Alberta, in the foothills of the beautiful Canadian Rockies, with two grown children, four cats, a chocolate lab and a husband who puts up with all of the above with remarkable patience. Lecia's debut novel was published by Avon in April 2011. And, she is, of course, busy working on yet another book.
Places to find Lecia:
The Christmas King
by Lecia Cornwall
Collingwood Castle, Wales, nineteen days until Christmas Eve
“Say the words!” Louisa Niven whispered, handing her older sister a bundle of dried herbs.
Phoebe took them gingerly, and tied a few strands of her brown hair around them, wrinkling her nose at the strong scent of rose, lavender and elfwort. “Show me my true love, and send him to me by Christmastide,” she murmured. She hesitated before tossing them into the fireplace. “Are you sure this will work in an earl’s library? Shouldn’t we be in a forest hut, or out in the woods, dancing around a bonfire naked?”
Louisa rolled her eyes. “Oh, Phoebe, really! It’s freezing outside, and the legend just says we need to gather the herbs of love at midsummer, then burn them on the feast day of St. Nicholas for the spell to work. That’s today, and no one said it couldn’t be in the library.” She tossed her own bundle onto the flames, watched the hungry flames pounce on them. Sparks crackled and shot up the chimney.
“Do you see anyone?” Phoebe asked, kneeling next to her sister to peer into the smoke.
Louisa frowned. “No. At least, nothing that resembles a true love. You try.”
Phoebe pressed the herbs between prayerful hands, looked heavenward, and giggled. “I feel silly,” she confessed.
“Just do it!” Louisa hissed. All Phoebe did was moon for love, and a suitor who would ride over the mountains and sweep her away, and now she hesitated? Phoebe glared scornfully down her pert nose for a moment before she drew a breath and cast the bundle into the flames.
They leaned forward, scanning the sparks for a sign. “That bit of burning ash, is that a face?” Phoebe asked, breathless, then drew back. “No. It looks like Poppy, Gran’s cat, if you ask me. Are you sure Gwen recalls the spell correctly? No matter what people say, she’s not really a witch, just the village midwife. She’s even older than Gran, and Gran can’t remember our names some days.”
“Everyone knows Old Gwen has magical powers,” Louisa replied. “She tells the same tale every year—maidens who gather the right herbs at midsummer, dry them, tie them with a lock of hair and throw them onto the fire on the feast of St. Nicholas will see a sign, and if they do, they can expect their true love to come to them by Christmas Eve.”
“Has it ever worked before?” Phoebe asked.
“Gwen swears she met all four of her husbands exactly this way,” Louisa murmured. “I’m sure we’ve done everything right.” She stared at the crumbling ashes. “Perhaps there wasn’t enough yarrow, or the meadowsweet is insufficient, or the lavender...”
The door opened, and the girls leapt to their feet. Louisa tucked the last bundle into her pocket.
Celyn Beauchamp regarded her two young cousins. “And what are you two up to?” They looked like a pair of cats hiding songbirds between their teeth. She crossed to the desk, set down a sheaf of papers and sniffed the air, filled with the sweet scent of herbs. “Casting Old Gwen’s love spell, are you?”
“Oh Celyn, Have you looked at the calendar? It’s December the sixth—St. Nicholas’s Day!” Louisa reached into her pocket and held out a bundle of herbs. “Look, I saved one for you. All I need is your hair, and then—”
Celyn tilted her head and smiled at her fourteen-year-old cousin. “My hair?” It was pinned up in a sensible and matronly bun, and she wasn’t about to take it down for such nonsense.
“Gwen says it’s essential, so the goddess knows who’s casting the spell,” Louisa said as she took the scissors out of her other pocket. “Please? It won’t take much hair, and it’s your last chance. The spell only works for young maidens, and you’re going to be twenty-one before Twelfth Night. Next year you’ll be an old maid!”
Celyn folded her arms over her chest, exactly the way an old maid might. She let them drop to her sides again, and resisted the urge to loosen her hair a little and pinch some girlish color into her cheeks. “Really, don’t you two have something better to do?”
“Like what?” Phoebe asked. “It’s too cold to go outside, and we’ve read every book in the library. If I have to sew one more shirt for Mrs. Jones’s new baby, I’ll cry. I’ve made at least a dozen already!”
“It’s not so cold,” Celyn said. Especially with the library fire roaring as it was, using a full day’s worth of fuel all at once. She rolled up her sleeves to keep them free of ink as she crossed to the desk. “It’s warm in the kitchen. Mrs. Jones is making fruitcake and plum pudding. You might offer to lend a hand so she can stay off her feet.”
“Gwen says she’s sure to have the child by Christmas. Who’ll cook the goose and make the venison pies?” Louisa complained.
Celyn felt her smile slip a little, and pasted it firmly back in place. She only hoped there’d be enough money for a goose, or that Aled managed to shoot a pheasant or even a hare, never mind a deer. Collingwood’s huntsman was getting old, and his eyesight was failing, but he wouldn’t allow anyone to take his post.
Christmas would be meager indeed, and the hampers for the village would be light this year, and with the cold coming so early…Celyn swallowed her fear and changed the subject to the only other one at hand.
“How have the omens for love been this year?” she asked, coming forward to take the bundle of herbs from Louisa, turning the dry twigs and flowers in her hand. There was no use burdening her cousins, or anyone else at Collingwood, with the dire position they were in. She still had a few pounds of the money Lord Collingwood had left her when he died. He’d meant it as a dowry, but there were bills to pay and mouths to feed while they waited for the new earl to put in an appearance and take up his responsibilities. She doubted she’d ever marry, anyway, and the last of her dowry might as well pay for some semblance of Christmas, and bring cheer and joy to everyone at Collingwood. Soon, perhaps by spring, the new earl would arrive, and everything would be fine…but she’d been saying that for months.
Phoebe sniffed. “What omens? I didn’t see anything at all. I’m almost seventeen! If we were still in England, I’d be making my debut next Season, and there would be no need to cast spells. Suitors would flock to my side.” She smoothed a hand over her blond curls.
Celyn glanced at the stack of unpaid bills on the desk, looked around at Collingwood’s threadbare library, at the antlers on the wall, the faded furnishings. She couldn’t afford to send Phoebe to London. “Perhaps next year,” she said gently. “When the new earl comes.”
“When the new earl comes!” Phoebe mimicked. “If he ever does. Great-Uncle Caradoc has been dead almost a year, and his heir hasn’t answered a single letter.”
“Then I shall write to him again, and keep doing so every week until he does reply,” Celyn said, keeping her tone even. She was as frustrated as Phoebe, but as long as there were people to feed, and ink and paper to write, she couldn’t give up. Everyone depended on her in the earl’s absence. Why hadn’t he replied? She was about to set the herbs down, but Louisa caught her wrist.
“Will you try the spell, Celyn?” she asked.
Celyn closed her hand on the sharp twigs, felt them prick her fingers. “I’ve really got too much to do. I’ve this letter to finish, and I should be helping Mrs. Jones, and there’s—”
“Please?” Louisa said, closing her hands over Celyn’s. “It won’t take long.”
Celyn sighed. “All right then, if only to prove it doesn’t work. One has to be practical, sensible, and—” Phoebe loosened a lock of Celyn’s dark hair, and raised the scissors. Celyn winced as the curl fell free.
Louisa tied it around the bundle, and led her to the fire. The warmth felt good at least, hopeful, restorative—exactly the way she imagined true love might feel.
“Say, show me my true love, and send him to me by Christmastide,” Louisa prompted. A tart reply hovered on Celyn’s lips. If her true love did show up at Christmastide, what on earth would they feed him? But when she looked into her cousin’s sweet face, saw her flame-bright eyes, Celyn saw something she hadn’t felt herself for a long while—hope.
“Show me my true love, send him to me by Christmastide,” she murmured.
“Now toss it,” Phoebe instructed, and Celyn opened her hand, let the bundle fly from her fingertips into the fire. With a rush of heat and light, it ignited, and the flames shot upward.
“I see purple!” Louisa gasped.
“And blue!” Phoebe said.
The colored flames reflected in her cousins’ wide eyes. “Well, what does the legend say?” Celyn asked, as astonished as they were. “Is that a good sign?” She watched the rush of embers as they climbed the dark chimney, carrying the spell out into the frigid winter sky.
“I think it must be! That didn’t happen when I tried,” Phoebe said.
Louisa clapped. “It’s working! Do you see a face, Celyn?”
Celyn squinted. “I see someone who looks just like Aled, probably because I’m hoping the hunt will go better today. I fancy rabbit stew for supper.”
“I see a crown!” Phoebe cried. “Look, just there—” she pointed at the shape in the glowing ash.
“A king?” Louisa gushed. “Gran has always said the King promised her he would come and dine with her at Christmas. She’s still waiting, even after all these years! Perhaps this is the year!”
Celyn felt a shiver creep up her spine, and straightened her shoulders. How silly, and yet, it did look like a crown…
Phoebe pinched her sister. “As if the King would come here! And he can’t be Celyn’s true love—he’s married to the Queen!”
“Gran was a maid of honor at court. She knew the King well. He wouldn’t forget such a solemn promise,” she said passionately, clasping her hand over the injured spot. “It wouldn’t be—kingly.”
“That was years ago, before he went mad!” Phoebe argued. “Gran barely remembers what she had for breakfast a half hour after she’s eaten it. How can we believe her account of a conversation she had with the King over thirty years ago?”
Louisa looked mulish. “He might come! Besides, he’s not the only king—there are kings in other countries, too!”
Celyn brushed the remains of the herbs off her hands and rose to her feet. “But foreign kings aren’t very likely to come to take Christmas with us,” she said. “Unless Napoleon invades, of course, and finds himself very lost.” Phoebe’s eyes widened with terror. “Not to fear,” Celyn soothed.
“Well if it’s not the King, it must mean Celyn’s true love will come,” Louisa insisted stubbornly. “I refuse to give up hope.”
Celyn gave her cousin’s shoulder a squeeze. There was more chance of a royal visit than true love showing up at the door, since there wasn’t a marriageable gentleman within fifty miles of Collingwood. She glanced at the portrait of the late earl that hung above the fireplace. Right up until his death at the advanced age of seventy, Caradoc Colley been regarded as the last suitable bachelor for ladies of quality in the whole of Snowdonia. Unfortunately, all four of them—herself, Louisa, Phoebe and their grandmother—were related to him.
She went back to the desk. “All flames look like crowns. It means the chimney is drawing well, or there’s a draft, perhaps.” It was chilly on this side of the room, away from the hearth, and she glanced at the windows, but they were all firmly shut, and laced over with frost. She sat down and took out a fresh sheet of paper.
Phoebe looked over her shoulder. “You’re not really writing to him again, are you?”
Celyn dipped the pen in the ink. “I am writing to the new earl’s man of affairs with an itemized list of expenditures.” And one more plea for money, supplies, and the essential materials needed to repair the cottages.
“He never answers,” Phoebe said. “Are you sure he’s even real?”
Celyn was beginning to doubt it herself. There’d been one reply to her letters, a terse note from someone—not the earl—informing ‘whom it may concern’ that all inquiries and accounts should be sent directly to the earl’s man of affairs. She hadn’t received any acknowledgement from the earl himself—no orders or instructions or even a condolence on their loss.
“Of course he’s real,” she said brightly. “I write so he’ll know that we are keeping Collingwood in good order, and everything is in prefect readiness for when he does wish to come.” She began to list the expenses of the last month, her chest tightening with every figure she noted. The harvest had been poor this year…
“He should come and see to it for himself,” Phoebe sniffed.
“Perhaps he’ll come in the spring,” Celyn said yet again, but frustration fell on her like a wet blanket, and she had to force herself to smile. “We can’t expect him sooner—no one in their right mind would travel in this weather! Now go and see if Mrs. Jones needs help in the kitchen.”
Phoebe flounced out with a gusty sigh, but Louisa kissed Celyn’s cheek.
“Will you tell me if you dream of him tonight, your true love?”
“Of course, sweeting,” Celyn said. Along with visions of sugarplums and Christmas fairies bearing roasted goose, baked ham and cake. She turned her attention back on the letter as Louisa skipped out.
“True love for Christmas,” she murmured. She glanced at the flames in the fireplace once more. They were plain yellow now, burning sedately. She shook her head. If only wishing really could make dreams come true.
But that, as she well knew, was impossible.
London, sixteen days until Christmas Eve
“You simply must come to Kingscott Hall for Christmas, Millicent!”
Edward Kingsley, Earl of Wintercross, made his escape the very same day—the very same moment, in fact—as that invitation was issued. By luck, he’d arrived early in answer to his stepmother’s summons to tea, or he wouldn’t have overheard her conversation with Lady Millicent Grainger. He’d have been snared like a rabbit, and served up at the family Christmas festivities as the man engaged, or even worse, married to Millicent Grainger.
But he was safe—for now. As Millicent was joyfully accepting the invitation, Edward snatched his hat from the butler’s hands, where he’d placed it not two minutes before, and fled.
Not just from Kingsley House—he’d left Town entirely.
It wasn’t that Lady Millicent wasn’t a suitable candidate for the post of someone else’s countess—her dowry was generous, she was pretty enough, and her pedigree was excellent. Her father boasted the Graingers could trace their lineage back to the moment William the Conqueror first set foot on English soil. Millicent’s ancestor had probably set her cap for the first wealthy, unmarried knight to step ashore, just the way Millicent herself had set her sights on Edward the moment she arrived in London last spring. He hadn’t shown her the slightest interest, but she’d been popping up everywhere he went, with her toothsome smile and winning charm—at the theater, at his elbow at every ball, trailing him on horseback down Rotten Row—stridently courting him, though he’d not given her any reason to hope for a proposal.
“You’ll have to marry eventually, and Millie’s a good sort,” his father, the Duke of Kingsbury, had advised him, since Millicent had successfully courted him, and the rest of Edward’s kin. “Why not get it over with, and set up your nursery? It would please your stepmother, and a number of other people as well. There are at least twenty bets on the book at White’s as to when, not if, you’ll marry Millicent.” He’d winked at Edward. “I myself have wagered on December twenty-ninth as the happy day. I stand to win a hundred pounds if you to make Millicent your bride by then.”
But Edward had no intention of proposing. He’d never met a woman he liked well enough to marry, and at the advanced age of thirty-one, he doubted he ever would. He felt he should have some regard, at least, if not a greater depth of feeling, for the woman he married. Since such a woman didn’t seem to exist, he was more than content to enjoy the pleasures, pastimes, and comforts of a wealthy bachelor’s existence permanently, even to the point of allowing his half-brother to inherit his lands and titles once he left this life. And really, what did one need a wife for? He had excellent servants to see to his needs, and friends for conversation or dining out. The fickle romantic escapades of his half sisters, the five silliest women in all England, had shown Edward it was wisest to avoid romantic entanglements. He’d seen enough gentlemen of his acquaintance lose their wits over a woman. It wasn’t a pleasant fate.
His stepmother firmly believed that a single man was an unhappy one, and she’d been throwing eligible young ladies at Edward since he turned eighteen. She had high hopes that Millicent would be the one to bag him at last, but Edward was about to disappoint her yet again.
Just days before Christmas Eve, when he might have been at Kingscott Hall enjoying a cup of hot rum punch and looking forward to an excellent dinner, he found himself on the road, far from any of his luxurious homes, in the middle of—he stared at the faces around him in the dowdy wayside inn—where the devil was he?
Wales yet, or still England? He hoped his coachman knew. It had been snowing for days, blotting out the road and the houses and anything recognizable as a landmark.
He stared into the cup of sour ale he’d been nursing for hours. Perhaps this was a fool’s errand. He’d had to leave word of his plans, after all, a hasty note written to his father, to be delivered the day after he’d left London. Once his destination was known, he pictured Millicent following him into the wilds of Wales, riding sidesaddle on a wild-eyed gelding, color-matched to her riding habit, with one of her father’s dueling pistols clutched in her dainty white hand. No doubt his half-sisters would accompany her on the manhunt, giggling all the way, a fashionable posse in stylish bonnets and fox-fur muffs, intent on dragging him back to hearth, home and altar. He shuddered, and hoped that his intended destination, the recently inherited Collingwood Castle, turned out to be as deep in the mountains of Snowdonia as his man of affairs described it.
Edward hadn’t even heard of the place before his late mother’s great uncle Caradoc Colley, the newly deceased Earl of Collingwood, left Edward his castle and title. Edward never expected to actually go to Collingwood, especially not in the dead of winter, but here he was, on his way. It would make a perfect hiding place—he frowned, and flicked a glance over his manicured hands.
He was not hiding.
He was inspecting his property, and planning to enjoy Christmas in blissful, Millicent-free solitude. If he ever arrived. He’d been on the road for days longer than he’d expected, and was now delayed at the world’s most disagreeable inn. While his coachman haggled with the local blacksmith over a wheel repair, Edward was kicking his heels among the locals in the taproom, who regarded him suspiciously over the rims of their cups.
It was the overloaded baggage wagon that had broken a wheel. In his defense, he’d been in a hurry. He’d ordered his servants to pack everything he might conceivably need. There were at least a dozen hampers of food, wine, ale and whisky, trunks of clothing for every type of weather or social event, monogrammed blankets, linens, eiderdowns, and the finest feather pillows. There were uncountable boxes of beeswax candles, and plenty of books. More than plenty. When the wheel broke, it had taken five men an hour to unload the cart. They behaved as if they’d never seen fine things before.
“It’s starting to snow again,” the innkeeper warned to the room in general. Edward wondered how the man could tell, since the taproom had no windows.
“Is it your left knee or your right?” someone asked.
“Left,” was the innkeeper’s morose reply, and it was met with a general groan.
“What does that mean?” Edward demanded.
“It means two feet of snow, maybe even more afore it lets up,” a farmer informed him. He picked up his hat and nodded to his companions. “I won’t delay, then. I’m for home while I can still find it.”
Edward watched the room empty out on the strength of a weather prediction made by an aching left knee.
“Will you be wanting to stay the night?” the innkeeper asked. “I wouldn’t advise traveling on.”
“Oh wouldn’t you?” Edward pictured being trapped in this dank inn until the innkeeper’s elbow predicted spring. “My coach is well sprung, made for heavy travel, my good man. I daresay I shall be more comfortable there than in what passes for your finest room.”
The man just rubbed his knee and winced, and Edward had insisted on setting out within the hour, leaving his baggage cart to follow. Surely Collingwood Castle couldn’t be much farther. Once he arrived, he would have a good fire, a hot meal, and his first decent night’s sleep in a fortnight in all that blissful solitude. He wondered what merriment his sisters were up to at Kingscott, and resolutely pushed the thought away.
It was rather a romantic notion, spending Christmas in the snow-covered Welsh countryside. He told himself he would not miss his family, or the endless romp of holiday parties and balls, or the simple things, like a crisp, freshly pressed copy of the Times delivered with his breakfast. But he would miss it—he loved Christmas at Kingscott—the excellent meals, port, cigars and good conversation in the library with the gentlemen, watching his half-sisters carrying armloads of holly, mistletoe, and ivy in to decorate the hall, laughing, throwing snow at each other, their eyes sparkling, their joy infectious.
He straightened his scarf, and brushed imaginary snow off his own coat. He would have a quiet, restful holiday. He would tramp over the fields, perhaps do a little shooting, eat well, sleep late, read, and not have to fear bumping into Millicent—or someone sent to encourage him to come to the point and marry her—at every turn. He might even stay for the entirety of the winter, if he liked the place. Looking out the window now at the snow, he wondered if returning to London was even an option. He may not have a choice but to remain until spring.
He shut his eyes and tried to nap. If this trip convinced the rapacious Millicent and everyone else that he had no intention of marrying, then a lonely Christmas was a small price to pay.
Five days until Christmas Eve
Celyn burrowed into her pillow, trying to ignore the hand gripping her shoulder, shaking her awake.
“Celyn, please wake up! The barn in the village is on fire!”
She was instantly awake. Catrin, the maid, hovered above her, her face pale under her nightcap. A candle shook in her hands. “Aled’s downstairs and he needs to know what to do!”
Celyn felt her chest tighten, and last wisps of sleep fled as her bare feet connected with the icy floorboards. “How bad is it?” she demanded, reaching for her robe.
“You can see for yourself,” Catrin said, and opened the drapes. The night sky glowed red above the trees beyond the park, and Celyn felt her mouth dry. She dropped the robe and crossed to the wardrobe to find a gown.
Catrin fastened the buttons as Celyn pulled on her stockings. “Aled was asleep in the barn. The new baby is keeping him awake at home, and he wanted some peace and quiet. He fell asleep with the lantern—” the maid said.
Panic welled in Celyn’s breast. “Is he all right?”
“Yes he’s fine, I think. He sounded the alarm, and they got the beasts out in time. Everyone is trying to put out the fire, but you’re needed.”
Celyn hurried downstairs, imagining the worst—people burned or killed, animals lost, the precious harvest stores gone. Aled was pacing the hall, mud and ash from his boots mixing on the black slate tiles.
“The barn is on fire, and the wind is shifting—” he said, twisting his cap in his hand. There were smudges of soot on his lined face, and tears in his clouded eyes. He looked every day of his advanced age, his bravado gone, his shoulders stooped under a dusty horse blanket.
“How bad?” Celyn asked again, reaching for one of Caradoc’s old cloaks from the pegs in the hall, wrapping it around the old man’s shoulders.
Aled shook his head, clutching at the warm wool. “Awful. The wind’s carried the flames to some of the houses. Mrs. Jones and the little ones are out in the snow. Me an’ Davy Price managed to get the animals out of the barn, and everyone’s trying to put it out, but the pond is frozen. The stores—” he swallowed, his body shaking with cold and sorrow. “My daughter-in-law can’t keep the wee one quiet at night. He’s getting his teeth in near as fast as I’m losing my own, and I just wanted a bit of quiet,” he said. “Where else is there to go but the barn?”
Celyn’s heart plummeted. She pulled on her own cloak and opened the door. “We’d best go and see.” The icy wind slapped her face and made her gasp, and snow filled her untied boots. She bent against the wind and pushed it back across the park with Aled behind her.
The village was in chaos. Four cottages were already on fire, and the hungry flames were reaching out for the rest. The barn was a birdcage of blazing timber. She looked around desperately for any sacks of grain that might have been saved, but there weren’t any. At least the livestock stood safely in the shadows. She felt her stomach rise, and swallowed quickly. She had never faced a crisis like this. Caradoc had managed things, with Aled to help, when he was younger. Children were crying and women screaming, standing in the snow in their nightclothes as their homes burned, staring at her, waiting for her to fix this. She clenched her fists in the folds of her cloak, and wondered where to even start.
She began by counting the faces, whispering a frantic prayer that everyone was safe, that no one was trapped inside the barn or in the burning cottages. She took off her cloak and wrapped it around Mrs. Stackpoole, who was eighty, and tucked a pair of youngsters under it as well. Their chattering teeth rivaled the roar of the fire.
“Soak the cottages,” she ordered the men slithering up the icy banks of the pond with buckets, knowing it was too late to save the barn. The entire harvest was inside, feeding the flames, starving the people.
Screams rose as the barn caved in, the timbers defeated by the assault of the flames. A rush of sparks flew upward into the dark sky, chased by scarlet tongues of fire. So much for spells and wishes, she thought, seeing nothing but disaster in the flames this time.
“What will we do, Celyn?” Aled asked, his voice plaintive in the wind.
They were all watching her, every soul from the oldest to the youngest, expecting—she felt anger fill her like another rush of hot sparks. Didn’t they see there was nothing she could do? But they were counting on her—old Mrs. Stackpoole, and Mrs. Jones with her five children, her belly big with the sixth, and Davy Price, who’d lost his wife only weeks ago, and now was without a home, too, with four children to raise.
Celyn wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep, and wake up to find that none of this was real. She clenched her teeth to keep them from chattering, and swallowed the bile rising in her throat.
“Take everyone up to the castle, out of the cold,” she ordered Aled. “Get Catrin and the girls to make hot tea and soup. Get blankets and—”
There were tears on the old huntsman’s cheeks, contagious tears, and she felt them sting her own eyes. “It will be all right,” she said firmly, trying to convince herself as much as Aled. She grabbed a pail of water, the rough rope handle tearing into her palm, and lugged it toward the cottages.
Despite their efforts, the village was a smoking ruin by dawn.
“It’s starting to snow,” one of the men said grimly, coming to stand with the rest beside Celyn. “We’ll have a foot or more before nightfall.”
Celyn looked up at the leaden sky. The heavy flakes of snow raised hisses of displeasure from the dying fire, but they came too late to help. “We’d best go up to the castle,” she said. “In the morning, we’ll see what’s to be done.”
“It is morning,” Perry Evans said grimly, looking around at the black remains of the village. “Won’t be nothing to be done until next spring, I’m thinking.”
“Aye,” several men agreed. “What will we do until then, Celyn?”
“What we need is a miracle,” she murmured.
Aled forced a wavering smile. “Then it’s a good thing it’s the right time of year for them, isn’t it, lass? Christmas Eve is only days away.”
She didn’t argue. She could feel only despair, battering her like the icy snowflakes hit her cheeks, her hair, and her chest. She turned away from the burned village and led everyone back across the park to the solid and reassuring bulk of Collingwood’s stone walls.
Once she’d bathed and changed, she’d write to the earl again, directly this time. But he was in London, a whole world away, and she was on her own.
Four days until Christmas Eve
Edward arrived at his new estate in a foul mood. It had taken four days to travel the last thirty miles through the snow. It would have been faster to walk, but his boots were handmade and brand new, and his valet was traveling with the baggage.
It was evening, but the sky was bright with snow, and there seemed to be little difference between day and dark. The thick, joyless white shroud of snow made it impossible to see anything of Collingwood’s park, or the landscape surrounding it.
The castle itself sat on the brow of a hill like a massive cockscomb, gray against the snowy sky, the chimneys and towers poking the low clouds, prodding the snow out of them. Edward gazed up at the forbidding towers and the crenellations as the coach forced its way the last few yards up to the door. Every window was ablaze with light, as if there was a party going on inside, and he wondered briefly if he was expected, and if it was all in welcome for him, but that, of course was impossible. He’d advised no one of his arrival. He wondered what he would find—lazy servants celebrating the season early, emptying the wine cellar and sleeping in the master’s bed. He hoped the steward turned out to be a good man who knew his job.
According to his man of affairs in London, the steward was a chap named Colin Beauchamp. He sent careful and regular reports, though every one of them asked for money. Edward had refused to send anything, of course, until he’d had the need for funds reliably assessed. Beauchamp wanted to build a dozen new cottages for Collingwood’s tenants, stating the old ones were in poor repair, and he recommended improving the livestock as well, adding a hardier breed of sheep, more ponies. The man was almost insistent in his tone, and rather impudent for a mere steward of a very small holding Edward had never heard of before. He was here now, and he’d see to the truth of Beauchamp’s claims himself.
The coach entered a wide courtyard, surrounded by high walls and creaked to a stop in the snow at Collingwood’s front door. Edward stared out the window at it. He felt as if he’d stepped back three hundred years into the past. The huge arched wooden door was studded with nail heads, designed more for discouraging invaders than welcoming visitors. He could see the black teeth of a portcullis above it—raised, fortunately, but poised like grim fangs nonetheless. Gnarled vines crawled over the surface of the frozen stones like veins, supporting the ancient walls perhaps, along with a secondary portcullis of menacing icicles. Light squeezed through a narrow slit above the door, casting orange light on the blue snow, and he wondered how long it had been since they last poured boiling oil down from there.
“Thank you, Childs,” he said to the coachman as he got down from the vehicle and straightened his cravat—that and an elegant coat being his only armor. “Drive the coach round to the stables, then find the kitchens and get yourself settled.”
He strode up to the door and rapped sharply with the brass head of his walking stick. The thick wood ignored the blows, having seen far worse, no doubt.
A puff of icy wind took his hat, and bowled it into a snowdrift. He snatched it back and he held it tight, and knocked again, louder this time. He should have had Childs wait until he was admitted. Was the wood of the door so thick they couldn’t hear him? He hadn’t packed a battering ram, probably the one thing lacking, and as luck would have it, the one thing that would have proven most useful to have at hand.
Perhaps the inhabitants of Collingwood were deaf, or drunk, or abed already. He pictured the servants sitting around a warm fire in the kitchen, deep in some distant part of the castle where they couldn’t hear him knocking. He set his hand on the massive iron ring that served as a latch and pushed the door open. It groaned a complaint, but gave under the hand of its master.
He walked into a cold white wall, and it fell on him. At first he thought he’d fallen into a snowdrift that had mysteriously appeared inside the castle. He wrestled it to the floor with a curse, and stood with his walking stick at the ready, menacing a sheet, freshly washed. Or so he assumed, since a long line of sheets hung across the entry hall, dripping on the stone floor. There was clothing, too—shirts of every conceivable size, petticoats, and kerchiefs all in various stages of drying. An iron chandelier swung over the entire scene, filled with tallow candles that flickered with a smoky, meaty stench.
He shut his eyes and opened them again, but the laundry was still there. Surely Childs had made a wrong turn. He’d brought him to a workhouse, or a foundling home, mistaking it for Collingwood Castle.
There were distinct sounds on the floors above him, singing echoing down the stone stairs, and laughter.
“Hello!” he called impatiently, parting the curtain of sheets to peer down a dark corridor. A face appeared out of the gloom, a young girl, round eyed and startled. She cried out at the sight of him and dropped the bundle of wet sheets she was carrying. They landed on his boots with a soggy plop. She flattened herself against the wall and stared at him.
“I thought you were Davy Price, coming in with firewood, but you aren’t are you?” she asked pointlessly, scanning him from the sheets on his boots to the crown of his snow-covered hat. He wondered if she were daft. Perhaps this wasn’t a workhouse after all, but an asylum for mad women.
“Is this Collingwood Castle?” he demanded, speaking slowly and loudly.
She didn’t reply. She stood blinking at him like a demented owl.
“Is this—” he began again, but stopped when she broke into a glorious grin and rushed forward with a cry. He retreated until he was backed against a wall and her nose was practically pressed to his.
“Oh my, it’s you, isn’t it? You’ve arrived early!”
“You were expecting me?” he asked, carefully.
“Not until Christmas Eve. Are you the King?”
The King? He stared at the fey creature. She looked about twelve or so. In the isolation of Collingwood, she had probably never seen a gentleman in her life, if she thought he was the king.
He sidestepped past her, and straightened his shoulders. “I’d like to see the steward if you please.”
Lesser mortals would have quivered at the frosty tone of his voice. But she merely smiled, and tilted her head to one side. “We haven’t got a steward. You’re here because of the spell.” He jumped as she suddenly dropped into a deep curtsy, her head practically resting on her knees. Definitely touched, he decided, blinking at the top of her blond head. She didn’t move. Was she waiting for permission to rise? He felt his skin flush with irritation.
“Get up at once! I’m not—”
“Who are you talking to, Louisa?” Edward looked up to find an old woman standing on the stairs, clad in a white nightgown, her feet bare, her long snowy white hair draped over her shoulders. She might have been a ghost from another age. Perhaps this was a haunted mad house. He shook off the shiver that ran up his spine as the child bounded to her feet again.
“It’s the King, Gran. He’s come early!”
The old lady put a papery hand to her throat and stared at him.
“Madam, is the housekeeper available?” Edward tried again.
“Is it the King?” she asked the girl. “He’s in a frightful state of undress. No wig, and where are his attendants?” she looked at him sharply. “Did you bring her majesty as well?”
The King? Wig? Edward frowned. “I came alone,” he said, unsure what else to say. “My name is Edward Kingsley. I’m Wintercross.”
“Of course, Your Majesty—we’re all winter-cross. The weather has been dreadful.” she tilted her head and peered at him like a magpie. “King Edward, you say? What happened to King George?” Her face crumpled.
“We’re always the last to hear news from London!”
He looked to the girl for help, but she was circling him, taking in every detail of his person as if she’d never seen anyone so marvelous. He felt his skin heat. “Look, I am not—”
“Arabella! Whatever are you doing down here without your robe? And no slippers,” Another woman said as she hurried down the stone stairs. “You’ll catch your death of cold!”
“He’s come! The King! The legend is true!” the girl said.
The woman stopped where she was, and stared at him in surprise. She had fine dark hair, caught in a braid that hung over her shoulder. Loose curls frilled around her face—a very pretty face. Her eyes were green, he thought in the dim light, or golden, perhaps, reflecting the candlelight like stars. Her cheeks were high and flushed pink, and her lips parted slowly in surprise. “The King?” she gasped. She was dressed in a pale wool gown, white in the lantern light, an angel. His mouth watered, and he swallowed.
“He’s come for Christmas!” the elderly lady said. “Just as he promised. I told you he would.” She leaned up to whisper in the angel’s ear. “But he’s King Edward, not King George. Whatever happened to King George?”
Edward was tired, hungry and cold. He was used to a houseful of obedient, well-trained servants who knew precisely what he wanted almost before he did. “Is this some Welsh custom I am unaware of? In England, children stay in the nursery, and women do not appear at the front door in their night attire. And they do not keep guests—although I am most certainly not a guest—waiting at the door!” he snapped.
He saw something flare in her eyes, an answering anger perhaps? She took his measure with a single sweeping glance as she retrieved a dry blanket off the line and arranged it over the old lady’s shoulders. “We weren’t expecting guests, or callers, given the weather. Are you lost, perhaps?”
He looked into her eyes, drowned in them, felt the heat of her skin even a dozen feet away. Did he smell wildflowers, hear singing? He had the oddest desire to sniff her hair, touch her cheek to see if she was real.
“He’s not lost! He’s the answer to the spell!” the girl said, and Edward shook off the moment and looked at her instead, frowning.
“Now see here, this is not a Christmas revel! I have been on the road for a fortnight. Once I’ve seen the steward—Beauchamp, I believe he’s called—I want a hot bath, then I will take a meal while my rooms are being prepared. Summon the housekeeper at once,” he demanded.
The angel’s face changed, grew as pale as the sheet beside her, and her eyes widened to flooded pools. She stood staring at him as if she were seeing a ghost. His eyes bored into hers when no one moved to obey his commands. “Don’t stand there looking at me! Tell me who is in charge and fetch them at once!” he said, advancing on her, his voice ringing off the stone.
“You’re the earl,” she said, a breathy, strangled statement, devoid of any joy at seeing him. In fact, he’d never felt less welcome anywhere.
“I am indeed,” he said, taking another step toward her. “And you are—?”
“Celyn!” the girl’s cry rang out as the beauty’s eyes rolled backward, and her body crumpled. He caught her before she hit the stone floor.
She was most certainly real, solid flesh, warm and feminine in his arms. She smelled of flowers, and her hair was soft and warm against his hand. He stared down at her. She was quite lovely, though young for a housekeeper, and rather refined to be a maidservant. There was lace at her collar—good lace, and a small garnet pin, like a drop of blood. “Who is—” he began, but the child was screaming for help, her cries ringing off the walls.
“Unhand her at once, or I’ll run you through,” a gruff male voice warned, coming through the sheets. Edward stared.
It was not an asylum. He had stumbled into some sort of Christmas play, a troupe of actors here for Christmastide. A bow-legged elderly man was pointing what looked like a pike at him, holding an ancient shield emblazoned with a Welsh dragon. Behind him stood a burly woman twice his size, heavily pregnant and wielding a rolling pin, glaring at Edward with malice. Edward didn’t want to unhand the woman in his arms. She was warm and soft—the first warm soft thing he’d felt for days. “Beauchamp?” Edward asked the man.
“That’s right,” the old man said, his eyes narrowing. “Now set her down. I don’t know who you are, or where you’ve come from, but you’ll not harm a hair on her head while I have breath in my body.” He looked like a faint summer breeze could knock him flat, Edward thought.
“No, Aled, he’s not a villain!” the girl chimed, stepping in front of the pike and pushing it aside as if it were a toothpick. “He’s come for Christmas. He’s what Celyn wished for, don’t you see?”
“He’s the King!” The old lady warbled. “King Edward.”
The old man’s scowl deepened, folding the wrinkled brown skin of his face into dangerous creases. “We Welsh aren’t fond of English kings named Edward,” he growled.
“I’m not the King, Beauchamp. My name is Edward Kingsley,” Edward explained, despairing of the aged steward’s wits. “I’m the Earl of Wintercross and—”
The girl’s eyes shone. “Don’t you see? He’s not invading, Aled, or kidnapping Celyn!
“He’s her true love!” she gushed. “He’s come to marry her!”
Edward felt his throat close in horror. He’d escaped Millicent, and a dozen other predatory debutants and their scheming mamas. What on earth had he walked into? He stared at the unconscious woman in his arms.
“We haven’t any mistletoe yet, but we will,” the girl murmured. “Would you like to kiss her anyway?”
Yes, Edward thought, staring at her soft lips, slightly parted.
“No,” he growled, warning bells clanging in his head. “Is there a place to, um—put her?”
“Will you carry her to her bower?” the girl asked.
“I can’t think the Queen will approve, Your Majesty!” the old lady said stiffly.
“This way, if you will, Your Majesty” the pregnant woman with the rolling pin said flatly. “There’s a settee in the library. I’ll fetch some the smelling salts and some brandy.”
Edward hesitated. He glanced down the long dark corridor, and then back at the heavy door that seemed to be some kind of magic portal to a very odd world. He was tempted to set the woman down right here, and go back through that door as quickly as his feet could carry him, but instead, he followed the odd denizens of Collingwood Castle.
**Want to read more? Head over to Lecia's site for the continuation of the story.
When her sister runs off to avoid an arranged marriage, Meg Lynton takes her place at the altar, since marriage to Nicholas Hartley, the infamous Devil Duke of Temblerlay is the only way to save her family from penury. By the time her wealthy groom discovers he's married the wrong sister, it will be too late to annul their vows. And how difficult can it be to marry a rake and a rogue like Temberlay? All she needs to do is give him an heir and move on with her own life...but deception comes at a higher cost than Meg may be prepared to pay.
When Nicholas Hartley inherits the family title after his brother's untimely death, an arranged marriage to a woman he's never met is the last thing he wants. But when his bride raises her veil at the altar, Nicholas realizes that his wedding night might prove to be a pleasure after all. After a bedding that leaves them both breathless, Nicholas discovers Meg's deception, and decides to teach his scheming bride how to be a proper duchess, kiss by devastating kiss...
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